A Fine Balance, 2007

"This theatrical adaptation is breathtaking"
New Statesman

A Fine Balance

by Rosie Millard
New Statesman | 23 April 2007

Condensing Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, his 768-page novel set in the dusty chaos of an Indian city, into a two-hour play might seem impossible. Yet this theatrical adaptation, by the Tamasha theatre company in association with Hampstead Theatre, which is revived with largely the same cast as for its original 2006 production, is breathtaking.

The year is 1975 and Indira Gandhi is in charge. A giant airbrushed portrait of her hangs as a backdrop throughout. Gradually, under Indira's nose, the leading characters introduce themselves: Shankar, a legless beggar aboard a wheeled trolley; Dina Dalal, an enterprising businesswoman; and the low-caste tailors Omprakash and his uncle Ishvar. In a piece of bravura staging, these last two characters materialise from a makeshift workshop underneath the concrete pillars of a road.

There is a palpable sense of being at the grimy centre of a great urban sprawl. With dust, light and, above all, noise, the giant throb of city life is brought vividly across through a mélange of sound, directed by Mike Furness, that includes the roar of traffic, human cries, dogs barking and lilting strains of music.

Dina hires the two tailors on the spot; she needs to make a batch of 36 dresses for an important customer. Operating a sewing factory from your house is illegal, but Dina needs the cash. She has, in addition, illegally let one of her rooms to Manek, a young man studying air-conditioning.

Kristine Landon-Smith (who, besides directing, co-adapted the novel with Sudha Bhuchar) proceeds to unwind the separate stories and destinies of the five characters with the calm assurance of someone paying out the line of a kite. Time and again, the action returns to Dina's flat before darting off in various directions. Each diversion gives a yet more shocking view of Indian life - from bourgeois selfishness to enforced sterilisation or the violent resettlement of homeless people in what Indira Gandhi called the "State of Emergency". Each moment brings a greater problem back to Dina's flat, which gradually acquires the status of a sanctuary.

For a book adaptation, A Fine Balance has a gratifying lack of weighty cross-reference, and although it aims to immerse us in a specific social moment, there is very little "state of the nation" pontification going on. What Landon-Smith gives us instead is several intensely human portraits of characters wholly immersed in a gigantic social landscape. It is what every play that describes itself as "wide-ranging" aims at, but only a few actually achieve.

The manner in which each of the main characters copes with personal struggle is particularly touching. Omprakash (Amit Sharma) may own nothing, but he keeps his fashionable coiffure perfectly combed. Dina (Sudha Bhuchar) is desperately trying to retain her financial independence, while Ishvar (Sagar Arya) dreams only of marrying off his nephew and continuing the bloodline. Also remarkable is Divian Ladwa, who plays both the legless cripple and the air-conditioning student with commanding versatility.

Because Landon-Smith has wisely immersed her characters in action, rather than back-reference and laborious tracts of description, hardly any obvious chunks of the book remain. These characters have been liberated from the page; now, they bound with life from the stage. Even the most theatrical device of all - puppetry - seems bewitchingly real, with three manipulated puppets: a monkey, a dog and a little girl.

This is not to say that Mistry's vision of India is at all sentimental; in the case of the girl puppet, our delight swiftly turns to horror as we must watch her being tortured on a high, spinning pole. Equally, as the play progresses, our protagonists are all gradually crushed by India, whether through the politics of Indira Gandhi, the caste system, or the grim state of unrelenting poverty. That we manage to leave the theatre with any sense of comfort and warmth at all is remarkable, and a testimony to the tenderness and humanity with which the central characters slowly reveal their life stories.